Tools and Technologies to Facilitate and Improve Design

XVII.2 March + April 2010
Page: 20
Digital Citation

From Davis to David

Liz Danzico

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In a converted church on 30th Street in Manhattan, seven musicians gathered on a spring day in 1959. Never before had they come together under these circumstances; in fact, some had never even met. When they arrived, each received sketches that could have fit on a napkin. Yet Miles Davis had just handed each of them the makings of jazz history [1].

With this gesture, and these slips of paper (conceived just hours before the recording), Davis allowed a new generation of musicians to collaborate as never before. And we're still listening to (and purchasing) the result of this single-day collaboration. In fact, the album, "Kind of Blue," is the most successful jazz album in music history. But what's most remarkable is that Davis introduced a new form of improvisation that day—a loose structure these seasoned jazz musicians had never heard—or played—before.

"Kind of Blue" marked the emergence of something called "modal playing," a departure from the complex nature of the bebop era that characterized the preceding years [2]. While many of us think of jazz as generally improvisational, in fact, the bebop era—characterized by well-known pieces such as Coltrane's "Giant Steps"—was more complex, disallowing significant improvisation for those without advanced training or divergence from the original composition. With modal jazz, Davis made the framework clearer by giving musicians more latitude to collaborate in real time, as it works from a more approachable framework built on something very simple: the scale.

Improvisation can be intimidating. It often brings up the notion of a stage, a single stool, and a discerning audience. Talent reserved only for the funny, improv is often relegated as something to be watched rather than participated in. Whether you have a fear of public speaking, or were brought up on the structured Suzuki method of classical music, improvisation has a Lord of the Flies air to it. There's the perception that rules are out the window, and you will be left to flail in the spotlight.

None of that has to be true.

back to top  The Improv Imperative

Improv is, in fact, a structure. As loose as its name suggests, its very constraints liberate participants. These constraints, and the potential freedom, are what make improv rich for designers to examine. If we look back even before the advent of writing, we see early instances of co-creation and improvisation. Its history dates back to the shaman, whose performances were influenced by an immediate situation, such as audience and environment [3]. A study by Albert Lord in the late 1950s grew out of a project started by Milman Parry at Harvard University some 20 years earlier. Because of his close analysis of the Iliad and the Odyssey, Parry believed that Homer was an oral epic poet (oral epic poetry is a collaborative composition that takes place over many generations). The moment a singer vocalizes Homer's poetry represents a combination of composing, reciting, and performing [4].

Similar to its historical roots, improv has a place in the modern performing arts represented in music, dance, comedy, and acting and is developing a place in certain creative organizations.

back to top  A Practical Practice

Improv is extending its practicality. Designers have been adopting improvisation design methods in their own practices. Made more visible by organizations such as IDEO and Pixar and researches such as Elizabeth Gerber at Northwestern University and Steve Portigal at Portigal Consulting, we're seeing how improvisation can be powerful in interaction design work. With collaboration activities in particular, improv becomes especially important when untangling complex problems that require teamwork or just getting a client unstuck.

At the intersection of improv and collaboration, we can consider:

  1. Concentrate on listening. On stage, it's critical to listen to what your partner says; each word or gesture provides valuable information. At an Interaction Design Association NYC talk in November 2009, Portigal suggested that one can make the best contribution by not talking. Not talking allows people to "speak in paragraphs instead of a sentence," instead of the collaborator or interviewer suggesting the words. He teaches his clients that "it's active to choose to hold back." Evidenced in ethnography, there is power in the let-there-be-silence method as a questioning technique. When you concentrate on listening and noticing instead of talking and being noticed, you'll pick up a whole new set of information around you [5].
  2. Support your partner. When you're in a scene, you want to make your partner look good because, in turn, you'll look good. Randy Nelson, Dean of Pixar University, explains that at Pixar, they use improvisation as a collaborative method, and they "accept every offer.... It's an offer, and you don't know where it's going to go, but the guarantee you have is that if you don't accept that offer, it goes nowhere." When you can choose between a dead end and possibility, support your partner and choose the possibility [6].
  3. "Yes, and..." One of the fundamental tenants of improv, "Yes, and" has the ability of adding to, unlike "no," which has the ability of stopping a scene. In brainstorming terms, the method is called, "withhold judgment"; at Pixar, it's called "plus-ing." Nelson explains, "It's not about judgment or saying, 'This is pretty good. How can I make it better?' It's about saying, 'Here's where I'm starting. What can I do with this?'" Yes carries forward the conversation.
  4. Take it off stage. Instead of critiquing one another on stage or during a performance, improvisers schedule time off stage, not taking valuable time away from the session itself. In her work from 2003 to 2008, Elizabeth Gerber worked with 100 students to understand how improvisation supports brain-storming for interaction designers. She showed that the same methods that hold true for theatrical acting can be applied to interaction design brainstorming activities. Similar to one of the brainstorming methods Gerber taught students, "withhold judgment" was popularized by Alex Osborn in a 1953 book, Applied Imagination, which advises brainstorm participants on principles for brainstorming activities [7].

back to top  Beyond Brainstorming

Outside the organizational walls, people use improv to gain unfiltered responses from their creative teams. In Hollywood, Larry David, the co-creator and executive producer of the HBO television show "Curb Your Enthusiasm," has been using a model, not unlike Miles Davis's, on his series since it began airing in 1999. The entire series is improvised by its cast, who perform each episode from only detailed synopses written by David. But it's not always easy. "I'm not gonna lie," David admits in a New Yorker article. "There are times when I'm driving home after a day's shooting, thinking to myself, 'That scene would've been so much better if I had written it out.' But that's the exception. Most of the time I'm thinking, 'I'm glad that scene was improvised.'" On "Curb" actors co-create the story (although David does meticulously edit the final product) [8].

In New York City, Improv Everywhere—a long-form improvisation troupe who originally met through the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre—executes pre-planned "missions" in public spaces. With more than 100 missions since 2001, the troupe works from partially completed scripts to act out missions like "Frozen Grand Central" or a "Food Court Musical," the real improvisation happening in how humans will interact with one another. How much improvisation is really involved? "Something like a musical breaking out in a grocery store is obviously completely scripted," considers founder Charlie Todd. "Although we still don't know how the customers there will react, where they will stand, or if they will get in the way of the choreography, so there is still an element of improvisation needed." While other projects are simpler (let's grab a blue backdrop and a stole and take "yearbook photos" on the subway), others require more coordination. "I've always regretted putting the word 'improv' in the title of the group, as it certainly confuses people who want to take it literally. But there is definitely an element of improvisation in every project we do" [9].

As the size of teams grows, so does the amount of coordination and structure needed. "When I reached a point where hundreds of people were coming out, many just friends of friends along for the ride, I realized that I need to make sure the experience is well planned out for their enjoyment, adds Todd. "People do not want to stand out in the rain for an hour if they're not a veteran member of the group."

back to top  Consuming and Co-creating

We improvise daily. Every time we come across a baffling product or service, we start the process. Without understanding intended use, we cope our way through it (often with pride), not cracking open the user manual the technical writer crafted so carefully, choosing instead to invent our way through the experience. These improvisations, at times, lead to the accidental new uses of products, just as improvisation on the creation side leads to the intentional development of products.

As consumers, we're already improvisers of sorts. Improvisation, to "compose or perform without previous preparation," is already part of a societal value system. There's a socially motivated correlation between the ability to improvise and perceived intelligence.

It would be easier, more elegant, far more usable perhaps, were we in control of the entire experiences we set out to design. But the reality is the democratization of design, whatever its definition, is upon us. So it's our responsibility to create rich engagements that result in meaningful experiences. And further inspection of improvisation for us as not just creators, but as consumers, may provide some insight.

Don Norman, in an insightful piece for interactions, clearly navigates "transmedia," the emergence of multiple media in common pursuit of a story or experience. Whether we are consuming or producing, being a spectator or a creator, what is needed, he puts forth, is "meaningful, thoughtful creation and participation" [10].

Improvisation has interesting implications for us going forward when we look at ourselves not as creators, but as consumers. While a tweet, a status update, or a flickr upload may not be a design contribution as we define it, a Blurb book or a fully funded Kickstarter project might be. At a time when we're beginning to become comfortable with co-creating content, we need to become comfortable with improvising. Not for a societal construct, but in the interest of creating meaningful and engaging experiences alongside everyone who wishes to engage in creating them. The challenge will be to sustain the quality in real time.

We've always been part audience, part creator. The world around us shapes our experiences. The more we can be active participants in observing our experiences, being critical observers in our surroundings, the better creators we will be. We're just becoming comfortable that the role we have is part consumer, part creator, and full-time improviser.

back to top  References

1. Nelson, E. The Making of Kind of Blue. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2000.

2. Burns, Ken. Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns. DVD, 2001. PBS Paramount, 2004.

3. Ishizaki, S. Improvisational Design. MIT Press. 2003.

4. Lord, A. The Singer of Tales. Harvard University Press. 1960.

5. Portigal, S. "Yes, My Iguana Loves to Cha-Cha: Improv, Creativity and Collaboration." IXDA NYC event, November 2009.

6. Spagnuolo, C. "Pixar's Randy Nelson on Learning and Working in the Collaborative Age." Chris Spagnuolo's EdgeHopper, Feb 11, 2009;

7. Gerber, E. "Using Improvisation to Enhance the Effectiveness of Brainstorming." Proceedings of the 27th International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (2009): 97–104.

8. Kaplan, J. "Angry Middle-Aged Man." New Yorker, January 19, 2004.

9. Todd, C. Personal interview, November 2009.

10. Norman, D. "The Transmedia Design Challenge: Co-Creation";

back to top  Author

Liz Danzico is equal parts designer, educator, and editor. She is chair and cofounder of the MFA in Interaction Design Program at the School of Visual Arts and an independent consultant in New York, on the editorial board for Rosenfeld Media, and on the board of Design Ignites Change. In the past, Danzico directed experience strategy for AIGA and the information architecture teams at Barnes & and Razorfish New York. She lectures widely and writes at

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